Grill Him Again!

Obama's no-holds-barred meeting was good for him—and for Republicans. Mark McKinnon on why "question time" should be a regular feature.

In one day last week, Barack Obama did more than he’s done in a year to prove he’s willing to walk the walk to change the tone in Washington.

It was a shockingly bold and confident move for the president of the United States to agree to a no-holds-barred exchange with members of the opposition party. The event is being compared to the British practice of politicians publicly grilling the British prime minister, except they get to mix it up with softball questions from members of their own party. Obama’s move was even more daring because his audience was made up entirely of Republicans and high, hard fastballs.

I submit that a regular program of interaction would go miles in leaching partisan poison from the well in Washington.

It’s really quite striking if you think about it. And when you think about it, it really was leadership. And it was good for the Republicans, as well. They generally behaved and asked thoughtful, relevant questions. Both parties came out looking good. A rare win-win in Washington.

In the 2008 campaign, working for John McCain, I saw a documentary about Barry Goldwater that disclosed he had had a conversation with John Kennedy in which they agreed that if they were their parties’ nominees, they would campaign together in the general election and cross the country debating each other, a la Lincoln-Douglas. I thought it would have been a great idea for McCain and Obama. Just get in the same plane and barnstorm the country together. Of all the politicians in Washington, they seemed maybe the only two who would be willing to agree to such an idea today. And while I think there was a real attraction to the idea from both camps, reality set in and it figuratively and literally never got off the ground.

But this is what the American people want to see. And if Obama is getting a bump in the polls now, then I think this singular event may have much more to do with it than his State of the Union speech.

We need more of this kind of leadership and ideas exchanged between the parties. We ought to make this concept a regular feature of our politics. I know that Obama’s message wing man, David Axelrod, believes part of the power of the Question Time session last week was its spontaneity, but I submit that a regular program of interaction would go miles in leaching partisan poison from the well in the Washington.

And I’m joined in this call by a broad and diverse group of colleagues who span the partisan divide with the launch today of an online petition calling for regular televised conversations like the one in Baltimore last week.

Sign the petition and send both parties the message that we need more of this kind of dialogue in American politics.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-chair of Arts & Labs, a collaboration between technology and creative communities that have embraced today's rich Internet environment to deliver innovative and creative digital products to consumers.